Uncle Sam Makes a Grab for Texas Tea
If you're of the opinion that President Bush The Younger led the country to war in Iraq mainly to secure access to oil, the way the strands come together in writer-director Stephen Gaghan's timely, globetrotting political thriller Syriana won't be very surprising.
If you're more favorably disposed toward the President and/or less conspiracy minded regarding the motivations behind America's foreign policy, the conclusion reached by the Oscar-winner (for his Traffic screenplay) won't sit well. Either way, you'll have to acknowledge the high quality of the movie and the relevance of the issues it raises.
Viewing Syriana through the prism of current events is entirely appropriate because it's designed to be a topical film that digs beneath the headlines to address pertinent questions concerning economics, politics, and natural resource management, as well as the roots of terrorism.
Politics and newsworthiness aside, the conclusion isn't completely satisfying from a formal point of view. Gaghan's complex, swirling tapestry -- a veritable flying carpet -- has so much forward momentum and offers so many perspectives, it's not surprising the ending disappoints. And though his scenario based on the memoir of an ex CIA agent is sometimes tendentious, it's skillfully woven together and consistently suspenseful.
A group of terrific actors are recruited to portray various foot soldiers, people we come to realize are being manipulated for a cause or powerful set of interests. George Clooney plays a seasoned Middle East operative for the CIA who's ultimately left out in the cold. Jeffrey Wright is a lawyer from a connected D.C. firm steering the merger of two U.S. oil companies (both run by Texas good old boys). His marionette is the firm's senior partner, a shadowy Beltway Mandarin (Christopher Plummer).
Matt Damon plays a Geneva-based financial analyst specializing in energy who, following a family tragedy, advises the forward-thinking prince of an oil rich kingdom. The prince is vying with his brother to succeed their father the Emir. On the bottom rung, at least with regard to being in control of their destiny, are two migrant laborers from Pakistan toiling in the Persian Gulf and ripe for the picking by Muslim extremists.
Hopping between Tehran, Texas, Washington, D.C. , Beirut, Princeton, Marbella, and Geneva -- to name just a few of the locales where the short scenes take place -- we witness arms sales, legal negotiations, espionage, political horse-trading, and countless hushed conversations. How will these strands come together? The viewer's interest is definitely peaked. A missing stinger missile and the "petroleum security of the United States" tie them together, but it isn't altogether persuasive. Moreover, America as represented by the CIA and an unholy alliance between big business and politics fares the worst.
In his director's note, Gaghan professes not to see any good or bad guys in the movie. Though it's dangerous to impute motives or political leanings to a filmmaker, and it's true no character is guiltless or beyond sympathy, the plot belies any neutrality. Gaghan has Bush, Vice President Cheney and their Texas oil cronies square in his sights. Syriana boils down to the thesis that American foreign policy and the use of the country's might is driven by fat cat businessmen, corrupt bureaucrats, and conservative activists.
Whatever your politics, it's a glib and less-than-original movie punch-line. Heightening your disappointment is the fact that the dense, meticulously crafted movie seems quite even-handed until the end. Many sections are profound. Of particular note are Tim Blake Nelson's delirious speech about corruption, a cogent anti-Western argument made by an Islamic fundamentalist teacher, and economic analysis spouted by Damon.
Gaghan also tries to spotlight the personal travails of certain characters, to little avail. Empathy for Clooney's CIA agent, who's tortured in one harrowing scene, is quite palpable; and you feel for others as well. But Syriana isn't about the individual, no matter the personal causes and consequences of big events.
With his dazzling, textured method, Gaghan makes the story he's telling seem more complex than it is. Ultimately he's trafficking in simplification. Syriana is an example of what Wright's attorney calls the "illusion of due diligence." And for most of its runtime, it's a fascinating illusion.
(Released by Warner Bros. and rated "R" for violence and language.)